It Happened Here

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Last episode I spoke of Mina Loy and her pre-WWI adventure in Italy with the Futurists who would eventually become Italian Fascists. Loy utilized Modernist tactics in her own art and writing, but she was apparently wise enough to see the violence and totalitarianism in that Italian strain for what it was and extracted herself to less authoritarian circles. I’m unaware that Loy ever presented herself as a politically engaged artist, but the various Modernists she associated with after the end of her Italian adventure tended to the unaffiliated or left-wing side of Modernism.

Another woman, and American this time, had encounters with the early German Fascists, in the era between the two World Wars. Her name was Dorothy Thompson. Thompson is another example of fleeting fame: she had a substantial mid-century multimedia presence through her books, journalism, and work in broadcasting. One of her roles was as a “Foreign Correspondent,” something of an antique designation now, but one that required that individual to live overseas and to report wisely what was happening in that country’s culture and politics. In Germany she was savvy enough to cover the rising profile of a fringe politician, Adolf Hitler. In 1931 she was able to wrangle an interview with him. This is some of what she wrote:

“When I walked into Adolph Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany….In something like fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. It took just about that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man.”

Thompson was nobody’s fool. She wasn’t alone in underestimating the possible impact of Hitler, this “little man,” based on his personality flaws. The canny observer in her was able to figure that he might be able to achieve titular leadership of the German government as part of a coalition with other minority parties, as Hitler indeed did little more than a year later. When asked what his program would be, Hitler was forthcoming: “I will found an authority-state, from the lowest cell to the highest instance; everywhere there will be responsibility and authority above, discipline and obedience below.” Hitler was generally not a secretive, conspiratorial revolutionary. This was his electoral platform. In evaluating that statement, Thompson compounded her error. Thompson concluded:

“Imagine a would-be dictator setting out to persuade a sovereign people to vote away their rights?”

That wasn’t a prediction, that was a rhetorical question. She didn’t think it could happen.

She published her article that year, and many thought her view the informed opinion that it was. If TL;DNR existed in 1931 you would summarize: Hitler is a clown car short of a few clowns.

Thompson shortly realized she had been wrong. Less than three years after she had disparaged him in this widely read article, Hitler made Thompson the first foreign journalist formally expelled from his new Germany. Had she helped or hurt Hitler by underestimating him? It didn’t matter, she had belittled him. Soon enough the world would be at war due to this insubstantial and insignificant man, this laughingstock.

She had a dark-humored quote on the matter. “Some got sent to camps. I got sent to Paris.”

Thompson was married to another writer who was extraordinarily famous between the wars, Sinclair Lewis. In America, another politician was drawing a mixture of scoffing scorn and fear as he moved to run for President in 1936, Huey Long. It’s thought that Lewis availed himself of Thompson’s experience, as he began to furiously write a novel about how a Fascist could unexpectedly be elected as the U. S. President. For his novel’s title, Lewis created an unforgettable phrase: “It Can’t Happen Here.”

The novel’s main character is a journalist, one who clearly knows that the forces which rise throughout the novel are evil, while underestimating their danger, but like Thompson he is able to recognize his error and take action.

We are now living in a time when that phrase that Lewis used for his title may seem more present than memorable. The alternative voice of this project, Dave Moore, has changed Lewis’ tense and described—what—that 1935 novel, or something else? You decide if he changed the story.

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